30 August 2009

Eat My Globe by Simon Majumdar

Go everywhere, eat everything
I first heard about this book at the Hay Festival in May 2009.
Jay Rayner, who is a kind of rock star god of food critics in England and was there to promote his own book on a similar theme, when asked in one of the sessions what he was reading, mentioned this title and said it was really good. Rather than making me feel “Oh I must get hold of a copy of Simon Majumdar’s book”, the thought that came to my mind instead was, “What a nice fellow that Jay Rayner is”. Jay Rayner is extremely talented but I couldn’t help also thinking that it’s this kind of sophisticated PR (some might call it his warm and generous personality) that contributes to his huge popularity. Anyway, that's how I recognized the book when Sunday Mid-day asked me to review it - and I couldn't help thinking, ha ha, the teeming billion people in India have never heard of Jay Rayner but are now going to read Simon Majumdar's book.
When I was half way through, I sent a message to my nephew Sachin, who's 10 and has the same sort of sense of humour as Simon Majumdar, that here's a book he might enjoy. I don't mean Simon has a childish sense of humour - it's Sachin who's a precocious writer. I'm not sure whether he's read it yet but I'm saving my copy for him on his next visit here in a few months.
Here's the review I wrote for Sunday Mid-day. It appeared today, and though they censored "ass"
to "a**", they were kind enough to carry the photo I sent them - that's Ekta reading the book and looking a bit as if she's newly arrived from Biafra and being force-fed with spinach juice and protein khakras for her own good ...
Simon Majumdar loves to eat. One fine day he threw up his job (that’s right: “threw up”) and pushed
off, travelling around the world looking for and eating the best food he could find.
The book has forty one chapters, each set in a different place that Simon went to, sniffed out the best possible meals on offer, ate them till he was stuffed, and described them for us.

How did he fund the trip?
A few years before he wrote this book, Simon Majumdar had come across food-discussion sites and it had been like discovering Narnia at the back of his refrigerator. It was a wonderland filled with people like
him who could spend all day making argumentative posts about important matters such as “best Sichuan hotpot in London” and “Lobsters tastier big or small?” This network now pulled in, inundating him with offers of hospitality and food advice.
Luckily, for five years he had been “putting by a decent sum away every month”. Yes, some of the writing is hurried and the editing is unforgivably careless with proofing howlers every four or five pages. But Simon is funny and I was cackling away like an ill-bred hyena more frequently than that.

Half Welsh and half Bengali, you might consider Simon ethnically rather exotic, but the book reveals a homogenously British temperament and self-deprecating sense of humour. More endearing even than his unabashed greed is his devotion to his parents and siblings which are manifest on nearly every page.

Some of the meals he tells of were fabulously orgasmic and others hilariously vomit-inducing, and Simon travelled through Finland and Iceland; Mexico and Argentina; Istanbul, Manila and Senegal – where, considering the size and duration of his meals, he surely released any number of loud and stinky dakars amidst the local populace.
In Melbourne he was bemused by the “almost pathological appeal to Australians of dim sum”.

In Kyoto, he ordered an unfamiliar dish and spat it out. Everyone laughed. He had nearly eaten cod sperm.

China was the most fun: at a railway station, the toilet was half-a-dozen holes in the ground straddled by Chinese men grimacing and groaning as they worked hard to extrude their daily bread in open view. Some of them had taken the opportunity to have supper at the same time and were eating bowls full of noodles. It was difficult to tell which end the slurping was coming from. Simon did not join them.
In Philadelphia, the Philly cheese steak was a soft Italian bread roll filled with sweet onions, wafer-thin strips of good beef and topped with cheese and so good that you have to queue for it at
Geno’s even at 1 a.m.
One of the few benefits of being British is the accent, and Simon overwhelmed American customers he was serving at a “deli” in Ann Arbor with the entire range from the “cor-luv-a-duck faux Cockney of Jamie Oliver to the plummy tones of David Niven”.

The bits about India were towards the end and it was only my saintly self-restraint that had me plod patiently through every word till I got there, and read with approval that “Mumbai is truly one of the world’s great cities, and it doesn’t really care whether you approve or not. You get the feeling that, if you were to mess with Mumbai, Mumbai would just turn around and kick your ass.”
He described the food quite adequately, too.

I tried reading this book in one go, and got terrible indigestion. Read a bit at a time. If possible, carry it with you when you travel as a “gastro-tourist” to the places it tells of.

26 August 2009

Why I supported the Emergency by Khushwant Singh

People, places, memories ... 75+ years of vintage Khushwant Singh
(This review was written for Sunday Mid-day and appeared in the issue dated 23 August 2009)
The last book I read about the Emergency was many years ago and it depressed me so badly that every time I hear the words “Rohinton Mistry” or “A Fine Balance” my hair stands on end and I shiver, tormented with images of lusty young men being dragged away to have their wedding tackle interfered with in a nasty way.
So this book was actually lying about my house for weeks and I was avoiding it.
Over a period I noticed others in the family chatting away knowledgeably about Amrita Sher-Gill’s energetic libido and Protima Bedi’s admission that she enjoyed sex as many as six times a day – and even the occasion on which R.K. Narayan sat stoically through a porn movie.
Curiosity piqued, I picked it up. It was not an endless thesis justifying Khushwant Singh’s controversial support of Indira Gandhi during the darkest phase of India’s democracy. Instead, these essays and profiles cover a wide range of subjects and personalities, and span nearly 80 years.
Khushwant Singh’s style is unpretentious and engaging, and his intelligence and years of experience have given him a rare and precious view of the world. His sense of the absurd puts in perspective much that our innate national trait of pomposity has rendered straitlaced and unjustifiably self-important. He will have us remember, for instance
that “Like most Indians, Nehru treated Whites with more courtesy than his countrymen” and that India’s godlike First Prime Minister was vain about his looks and that if his breakfast was late he would storm into the kitchen to berate his cook.
Missing from this book was his anecdote about the occasion when, as PR guy at the Indian High Commission in England, he had sent out press notes about the Indian PM’s visit and English subeditors, unfamiliar with the word “Pandit”, assumed it a proofing error. The country woke to headlines which proclaimed that Bandit Nehru had arrived in the UK.

Besides Nehru, this book also has reflections concerning Partition, the Sikhs, L.K. Advani, Qurratulain Hyder (“Aunty Subjantiwalli”), Firaq Gorakhpuri, G.D. Birla, Maharaja Ranjit Singh and many more.

When Khushwant Singh writes about Indians writing fiction in English, he regrets that no major work of fiction has come out of the history of India’s freedom movement or about Partition – modestly disregarding his own Train to Pakistan.

In his no-nonsense way he shares here his views on food, religion, the weather, wealth, kissing, old age, death and various other subjects – not forgetting to mention (more than once in this book) that he never bothers to have a bath because to thoroughly scrub essential locations of the body with a damp cloth is equally effective. Reading this as Pune pants with anxiety for our vagrant monsoon, I felt better about the water cuts.
When I closed the book, I thought about all the history and perspective it had given me and determined to recommend it to everyone I possibly could, requesting them to share it with their children and grandchildren, to whom it would give an unbiased and funny view of the world which gave rise to them.

Taking a fond last look at the cover, I realized with a start that I’d forgotten why on earth Khushwant Singh had supported the Emergency.

23 August 2009

The Mahabharata by Jean-Claude Carriere, translated by Peter Brook

Krishna, tell me what to do. Please.
This time, Gladys brought along this book for us to read: an Indian epic, interpreted and written in French by a French writer and actor, and translated to English by a British theatre personality. It’s not easy to read a play, especially one strewn with tongue-twisting names like Dhrishtadyumna, Dushasana, Dhritharashtra and the others, but Gladys was admirably stoic of my monotone and I quite enjoyed myself. As I read, I liked imagining how it might have been picturized and did feel that the epic had retained its elements despite the long journeys it had made between cultures. (Now this could well be because I’ve only ever read the Mahabharata in English and even the stories my grandmother told me were only in that language.)
This play was first performed in 1985 and later made into a television series. Some Indian scholars complained that the play trivialised the epic and depicted it not as the portrayal of a titanic clash between the forces of good and evil, which it is meant to be, but rather the story of the warring progeny of some rustic landlord. I felt this criticism rather unfair – although I had only read it and not seen the stage version. Perhaps the play itself did reduce the great pride of the Hindus to a trashy village story. Both Gladys and I agreed that though we couldn’t imagine sitting through 9 hours of it a stretch, we did feel it did justice to a great world epic and that the translation was contemporary and admirable. (You can also read the full and rather eloquent criticism Pradip Bhattacharya wrote in November 2004.)
I must admit that the only other Mahabharatas I’ve read have been children’s versions so of course I don’t really have a basis for comparison. However, the stories of the epic are complicated and powerful, they are not silly fairy stories, and as I read, I did feel the force of the complex messages that the Mahabharata carries – the messages of how we should act, and the reality of how we actually do act; and how easy it is for good and bad to flip sides when your own perspective changes.

17 August 2009

Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia

Palla fish, the Sukkur barrage, and other icons of a lost homeland
This is not just a travel book, it’s also a history book and a geography book. It’s a book not just backed by formidable research but also well written, easy to read and strewn with the most charming, profound and funny anecdotes.
The region around the Indus may be inhospitable and dangerous today – but we learn here about its links with Islam, Sufism, the Sheedis, Sikhism, Buddhism, Alexander, the Hindu gods – and more.

For me, this book was even more than one of the best books I’ve read in the last ten years. It also hit some strong emotional notes. I was reading about the land of my ancestors – a land lost to me forever – and learning things I had never known before. There were stories, descriptions and historical facts about the region from which my mother’s family escaped with their lives, and nothing else, soon after Partition when they realized with growing horror and dismay that they could not stay here any more. In all the years I was growing up, my mother never spoke about her childhood. She never told us the stories her grandmother had told her. We never saw through her eyes the countryside or the towns and cities in which she grew up. There were some memories of the trauma, but it seems that she had put everything aside and focused on adapting and moving on. Reading this book, and imagining a place where Sindhi was spoken on the streets did something very special to me, which I can’t really describe. It was a coincidence that I read it just a few days before her 75th birthday and was able to buy copies as presents for her siblings. And I consider myself fortunate that the earnest, scholarly and very talented author of this book spared the time for a few question-answer sessions with me.
Alice Albinia told me that she had got the idea to write this book when she was living in Delhi ten years ago. She returned to London and studied for an MA in South Asian history at SOAS, which became an MA on the history of the Indus. After that she began travelling in the Indus valley, but always coming back to libraries in Pakistan, India and Britain in between. After her first trip she began writing a book proposal, and got a publisher's contract very soon. The book was going to be an exploration of the history of the river as well as a journey. She had begun learning Hindi when she lived in Delhi. At SOAS, she took courses in both Hindi and Urdu, and once she started going to the Indus, often spent months speaking very little English: "The river passes through many places where English is not the mother tongue," she told me. "Urdu and Hindi have different scripts, of course, and there are variations in vocabulary. But I spoke the same language all the way along the river - and was politely complimented for my Urdu in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and for my Hindi in India and Tibet."
I asked Alice Albinia, on behalf of Open magazine, why she thinks the Pakistan/Afghanistan area had become such a heartland of terrorism, what she thought it was that made it so male-dominated, and what she thought would be its future. You can read her response in the 8 August issue of the magazine, or on Alice talks to Saaz.

Here are a few more of the questions I asked Alice Albinia, along with her answers:

How long was the trip, how did you travel, and how did you carry all your luggage? You’ve mentioned you had a copy of the Rig Veda with you … how big is it, and what other books did you carry?
The journey was made up of many long trips over three or four years. I travelled by boat, or bus, or train, or by foot - by whichever mode of transport seemed best at the time. I left books and clothes and possessions in friends' houses in Karachi and Islamabad and Lahore and Delhi (I still have an array of tin trunks of my belongings in many of those cities). Often, on longer journeys, if my clothes wore out and began to look shabby I used this as an excuse to visit the tailor and have some new ones made; I grew very fond of my shalwar kameez collection. The copy of the Rig Veda which I carried during the journey through the Northern Areas of Pakistan was a paperback which I brought with me from England, but I love books and made many book-loving friends along the way. As a result I now have a big library at home in England, comprised of volumes I bought or was given in the Indus valley. It's not as big as my friend Irfan's library in Karachi, however. That is world-famous for its size. Though I believe the cataloguing system is quite esoteric and contained only in the head of one man.

You’ve written about the British East India spy Alexander Burns, about the damming of the Indus at Sukkur that destroyed the delta, the way in which Sindh was conquered, and the infamous divide and rule policy in a bit of a disapproving tone. What do present-day Britons feel about the Raj? How would you say history has impacted the relationship between our two countries?
Well, I think it depends who they are. Some British people actually remember the Raj, others, like me, weren't taught about it at school and thus grew up with but the vaguest idea of what colonialism entailed. When I first went to India as a teenager I remember being worried that Indian people would hate me for being British; while I was in India and Pakistan writing this book I met young British people with ancestors from the subcontinent, who had a very complicated relationship to their grandparents' homeland. If the history of India was altered by immigration from England, then in a very different way, immigration from the Indian subcontinent has had a big impact on British culture. This isn't just a post-colonial phenomenon, but one that began centuries' ago. (The introduction of shampoo to these shores is an event whose importance should not be underestimated, either.) For all these reasons, I think that the people of these two very different places will continue to evince a mutual interest in each other for a long time to come.

A lot of the simple historical facts of what happened in Pakistan right after Independence are simply unknown in India – why do you think that is?
Because of the violence and trauma of Partition, the years following independence were fraught and chaotic and difficult for people in both India and Pakistan. At the same time, there was a swift shutting down of communication between people on both sides of the border which took some of them by surprise. It was difficult to travel between the two countries - even to communicate with somebody in the other country - without arousing suspicion.

The Karachi you’ve described sounds similar to Bombay – in what ways are cities in the two countries different?
Yes, I spent months in Karachi - looking across the sea to Bombay, which I had heard about and read of many times but never seen. People from Karachi often spoke of Bombay as a more sophisticated elder sibling. Karachi was part of the Bombay Presidency for a time during British rule and when I eventually visited Bombay last year I found the two cities very reminiscent of each other. They have a similar ponderous, colonial Gothic architecture; their people share a love for the sea. In Bombay's museum there are beautiful artefacts collected from Sindh by archaeologists during British rule. Bombay has more coast, of course, and the Raj-era buildings are in better shape. Architects in Karachi have to keep up a constant battle to stop old Karachi going to rack and ruin. It is strange to think that there was once a ferry plying between the two cities; and that the terrorists who came to Bombay from Karachi entered the city from the sea.

You’ve described sights of great beauty that you saw on your journey – landscapes as well as man-made monuments of various kinds. Could you please describe for us the one that struck you most? Do you have photos of it?
I was amazed by the ancient human culture of the Northern Areas of Pakistan: the valley of monumental stone circles, the Matisse-like prehistoric rock carving of archers which I saw on a hillside near Gilgit. There are photographs in my book and more on my website http://www.empiresoftheindus.co.uk/

The journey you went on had its painful moments – extreme nausea, body odour of traveling companions, strange food, sleeping among strangers in cramped enclosures, and it surely couldn’t have been fun going to the loo. What was the worst? (Did you really come down with scurvy??)

The worst night I spent was in a pilgrim's camp in Tibet the day before we finished our parikrama of Mount Kailash. There were around twenty of us sleeping in a kind of Tibetan sarai and water dripped on me all night from a leak in the roof of the tent. I didn't get scurvy on that trip - the spinach from the monks' garden was my medicine - but I did get very bad sunburn from walking through the snow. I can still see the marks of it on my face - a memory of that strange and wonderful trek to the source of the Indus.

Has your book brought ASI attention and protection to the historical treasures you saw being systematically destroyed?

The ASI wrote to me about the rock carvings in Kashmir. I haven't been back to Ladakh since so it is hard to tell what kind of protection the prehistoric rock-carvings there are receiving. Those in more immediate danger of extinction are the ones along the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, for they are due to be submerged completely beneath the waters of a new dam which the government is building there on the Indus River.

You’ve written about the Sufi Sajjada Nasheen and his theory that “Man is like fire, woman like cotton”. What was this experience like for you as a woman in a male-dominated land? When people asked you, “Where have you left your children? Did your husband give you permission to come here alone?” what did you feel and how did you react?
I learnt that you can never predict what a person's reaction to strangeness will be. Sometimes I had to endure lectures from men who thought I was going about my life the wrong way; at other times I had sympathetic conversations with those who were intrigued by our cultural differences. In some areas I was very glad that I was a woman - because it meant that I could meet other women; as a man I wouldn't have been able to. Also, when I was covered-up nobody knew that I was foreign and I could travel to places which it would have been difficult to visit, were I a foreign man. Frequently, though, I was treated as neither man nor woman but a person of some intermediary sex and this meant that I could cross carefully demarcated boundaries with impunity.

How did the journey and the process of writing this book change you?

I hope that I've brought some Indus valley hospitality back home with me to England

14 August 2009

POONA COMPANY by Farrukh Dhondy

From Poona to Pune
This book is one of the most engrossing, enjoyable ones I’ve read – the
kind that makes me think, “I wish I’d written that!” It’s a collection of short stories based on incidents that happened around Farrukh Dhondy when he was growing up in Poona. These are stories of life in a small town, as part of a tiny, unusual – some might even say peculiar – community. Each incident and person is carefully described – but with so much elegance that the narrator’s voice is barely perceptible and we are carried along in a magical trance of changing scenery, seeing and feeling what the magician author compels us to. As one reviewer put it, and I agree completely, “Poona Company is the work of a natural story-teller, entertaining and funny and truth-telling in a way that no lesson about other cultures could ever be.”
I walked down to Sarbatwala
Chowk in Pune, a crowded little intersection which is the focal point of many of the stories, and tried to imagine what it must have been like fifty years ago. All I could manage was a two-dimensional, black-and-white image of a leafy street, men on bicycles, a tonga or two and a public bus dating from World War II, something borrowed from an INTACH album.
It was noisy and crowded. Almost everyone around me wore a surgical mask – to protect themselves against swine flu. Pune is currently the swine flu capital of India. We don’t wear helmets in Pune though the fatality and brain-damage figures for bikers in our city are terrifying. If as many people wearing the masks had worn condoms, our HIV statistics would probably be lower too. Ah well.
I called and emailed the Parsis I know, looking for someone who could tell me about those times and was lucky to find that my friend Armity Irani’s husband, Shapoor, had actually been two years junior to Farrukh Dhondy at school. “I read Poona Company in 1980, soon after I returned to Pune after a long stint abroad,” Shapoor told me. “It took me straight back to my childhood, the friends I grew up with, school life, and the days of hanging out at the old Irani joints. Yes, Sarbatwala Chowk was Ground Zero for us in those days!” Shapoor also gave me updates on some of Dhondy’s characters. The strongman Samson, who bore the bodies of innumerable dead Parsis to the Towers of Silence, tragically spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair. He had diabetes and had lost his legs to gangrene. However, Shapoor admits (without a touch of remorse), “Farrukh never cared for me much because I was one of his sister Zarine’s admirers. She was a beauty, with red-gold hair, and a lot of us would hang around near their house hoping to get her attention. Farrukh was the intellectual sort and he didn’t approve of us.”
I found this an interesting revelation because the narrator Farrukh of Poona Company is just a regular guy – a schoolboy who gets up to mischief, is terrified of getting into trouble with his elders, and has deep emotions but cannot express them. The single glimpse the book gives into his intellectual side is so casual you could easily miss it: Raje was known to me because a month before that big game he had challenged me to a chess tournament behind the pavilion in college. He had bet me ten rupees per game. I beat him in three games straight and when I reached for the money under the board, he reached for a black box he carried around. He was a medical student. Out of the dissection set came a mean-looking scalpel. “You moved when I was not looking. You touched the queen twice without shifting it.” He took the money.
This book had been out of print for years and it was like a gift to find it back in the shops.

THE BIKINI MURDERS by Farrukh Dhondy

Too bad we'll never know ...
About fifty pages into this book I started thinking, “haven’t I heard all this somewhere before?”
After I
finished reading, I looked carefully for supplementary text like introduction, appendix and other which greedy readers tend to brush aside impatiently – just tell us the story quick and keep moving, will you – but there was not a single mention of the phrase “Charles Sobhraj”.
Johnson Thaat’s Vietnamese mother drags him off to France to be with her French lover. Johnson does not feel at home and turns to crime. He later runs away to try and find a home with his Indian father in Poona.
Johnson is ruthless but irresistible to women. His is a crazy, wild story, replete with heroin, diamonds and bikinis. He and his lover dupe innocent tourists, drug them, kill them and steal all their money.
Is it the lack of love in his life that turned Johnson Thaat into an inhuman killer or was he born like that? Do we really care?
Farrukh Dhondy writes well but I’m sorry to say this book didn’t hold my attention. Perhaps it might have if I had believed it to be the true story of Charles Sobhraj – but it became clear why this had not been possible when I later read headlines of the nature “Sobhraj readies to sue Dhondy over ‘Bikini Murders’.”

12 August 2009

Lata Mangeshkar ... in her own voice Conversations with Nasreen Munni Kabir

Lata Mangeshkar talks about herself to her friend Munni
I had meant to flip through this book and just get a sense of it, but once I started reading, couldn’t stop. Nasreen
Munni Kabir is a British film maker of Indian origin. In 1991 she made a documentary film on Lata Mangeshkar who despite her wariness of the press agreed to be the subject because she had liked Nasreen’s series Movie Mahal and her documentary on Guru Dutt. The book is presented as a long question-and-answer session, and Lata Mangeshkar talks about various aspects of her life – her childhood, her early struggle, her career, her interests and more. I liked the easy flow of ideas, and the sense of being present during the conversation. When Nasreen and Lata chatted about the songs she had sung over several pages, I actually had those lovely old tunes running through my mind during the rest of the day. One of the things that struck me as I read is that when someone today becomes well known and worshipped by the public, it’s often just because of media exposure and “hype”.
This book makes it clear that in Lata Mangeshkar’s case
her success stems primarily from her extraordinary musical skill, her dedication to high-quality output, and her thorough professionalism. Driven by economic need, she worked with single-minded purpose and made use of every opportunity to work and perfect her skill. When she sang, people were moved by the way her voice reflected the emotion in the lyrics. When the words were in languages she was unfamiliar with, she practiced hard to perfect the pronunciation. She had no formal education – but had an astonishing memory and musical ability from the earliest age.
She had pleasant working relationships as well as warm personal friendships with most of her colleagues, and they feature in the book as well. She had become the head of the family when her father died and took care of her mother Shuddhamati Mangeshkar who had been widowed when only 36 – and who she was later able to take on holidays with her to many countries and even once to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen at a garden party. My favourite image was the one of the great singer as a youngster standing at a Bombay commuter railway station and singing a song for her Masterji’s approval; of hopping into a carriage on another occasion with Kishore Kumar. The book tells us about Lata as a person – her skill at cooking, her love for dogs (she had 9 at one point, much to the chagrin of her poor mother!) her interest in photography, cricket – and slot machines! She would hire a bicycle because she loved to ride – but never owned one. When Nehru once asked for a private performance after a public one, she had the poise to say quietly, “I won’t sing now”. These stirring images are enhanced by many beautiful and evocative photos of special occasions and people over the years, including some taken by Lata Mangeshkar herself, and one absolutely stunning one showing her beautiful long hair. Over the years, Lata Mangeshkar has acquired a reputation in some quarters for negative traits and bad behaviour, and for being jealous and egotistical. Nasreen Munni Kabir is very clear that she will only talk about who Lata Mangeshkar is, what

she thinks, and how she works – and is not interested in digging into her private life for dirt. However, she does set the record straight on a number of unauthorised and untrue stories that have been published in various articles and on the internet. About 30 percent of this book is from the material collected for the documentary but in addition, Nasreen conducted twenty long telephone interviews from London, and then came to Bombay and spoke with Lata for a few months face-to-face. They spoke mostly in Hindi but the book is in high-quality idiomatic English, and the song translations are worthy of a poet. Having worked together on the documentary and now this book, Nasreen and Lata seem to have got along really well and their respect for each other is tangible right through the text. When Lata Mangeshkar speaks of her friends and the people who have been important to her in her life, it’s no surprise that she includes Nasreen Munni Kabir in the list.

06 August 2009

Faking it by Amrita Chowdhury

One world for the artist, another for the buyer
This book is set in an extremely well-constructed

and authentic Bombay. It is, however, a Bombay where you travel not by “local” train but in a luxurious car driven by a liveried chauffeur. Where you eat not vada-pau stuffed with green chillies and dry spicy garlic powder at a street vendor’s – but linguini (in a pastou of walnuts, olives and roasted apples and prime steak – perfectly presented on large creamy platters). It’s not a Bombay where you perspire all day in a soupy atmosphere of diesel fumes and dried fish but one where the wintry air-conditioning has you all draped in pashmina as you recline on velvet sofas.

It’s a fun book, well written and racy. What I liked most about it was the easy understanding it presented of the art world. Best of all was when a character says:
“It speaks to me like no other painting has ever done. It gave me comfort and strength when my own world was falling apart. I drew my courage from it. How can it be a fake if the emotions it elicits are so genuine?”
In a world where people “love” paintings only when others have first endorsed them, I thought this statement might encourage us to try and understand how to develop an appreciation for art on our own.

Amrita Chowdhury has engineering degrees from IIT Kanpur and Berkeley, and an MBA from Carnegie Mellon. But she has always wanted to write. When she moved back to India she decided

to take a short sabbatical from management consulting to pursue that dream and write this book. “It was a sane way to settle down,” she says, “to write full time and get to spend some quality time with my kids. Time is a precious commodity when you are working in professional services and have young kids. Since this was my first book, there was a steep learning curve and I am glad I did it the way I did.”

She’s back at work now, as Associate Director of Harvard Business School India Research Centre – but also working on her next book, “a coming of age thriller that promises to be even more fun” which is likely to be out by end 2010.

Tara Malhotra, the heroine of Faking It, is a Finance professional. When her husband accepts a job promotion and transfer back to Bombay from the U.S. where they live, she follows sulkily. I asked Amrita what she personally has in common with Tara and she said, “Tara is as ‘autobiographical or not’ as most book protagonists are. She is definitely drawn from the sum of my experiences and perceptions - myself, people around me, society around me, and how I perceive or infer it.

“Am I Tara? No. That said, yes I have lived overseas for 15 years and then moved back to India with my family. I am a wife and mother. So I fit the general bill. I love collecting art. I started pretty late- 2001ish... a couple of years after my MBA. It was already too late to enter the market - by the early 2000s, it was already peaking rapidly.”

She added:

“My book was inspired not by one specific thought or incident, rather by an overall love of art. Indian contemporary Art has not been explored in fiction before and I thought it would be fun to do it. Prices have been rising. Forgeries have happened. So to add drama to the story, the forgery angle seemed a good one.

“Plus, there has been in recent years the whole reverse migration process that has been happening since Indian economy has blossomed. There are exciting prospects and many challenges. I wanted to capture that in fiction as well. Sort of "India Unbound" but in fiction. We all hear about the poverty and madness and chaos in Indian literature, and yes it exists. Tara herself sees that from her privileged confines. But through Tara we can see another world - of the rise of the Indian bourgeoisie, how they play on the global stage now. While Tara is aware of the things around her that do not work, she is also very aware of how much India has changed in the past ten years. Upward mobility, aspiration- not a possibility in 70s and 80s in India, is happening to young men and women across India. Yes, the problems still exist. But hey, has there been progress since our parents generation? Yes there has. My book tries to depict all that.”

04 August 2009

Going to School in India and the Girl Stars series from Random House

Beautiful and inspiring - but who will read them?
Going to School in India by Lisa Heydlauff is a brilliant collage of photographs and brief text which shows the cultural and economic diversity of school children in this country. In tiny vignettes it’s full of information about different parts of India. I thought it very well researched and admire the intelligent and creative effort that went into it. At Rs. 450, this excellent book may not go to those who would enjoy and benefit most from it. I raved about it to my friend Gladys so she's borrowed my copies to show around to Principals of some of the schools in Pune and let’s see what they say. Meanwhile … why not skip your next meal out and invest instead in a few copies, and hold sessions reading it to out to kids at your local municipal school and to the kids of your domestic staff and their friends?

When Anita the Beekeeper was “very small”, she would walk pass the village school on her way to the forest. One day, she stood on “her tiptoes” and peeped over the red stone wall.
This story for children tells how Anita began to attend school against her family’s wishes when she was only seven, how she earned her way, and even used her enterprise to start a business that saw her through college.
I found the storyline thin, the language vague and the grammar iffy, but the illustrations are so beautiful that they make the book extremely attractive and I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it. The question I couldn’t avoid asking is – who is this book meant for? For most children who will get to read it, it will be a story about how the other half live. I think it might also embed in them a sense of the relationship between education and economic wellbeing – not a bad thing at all. But those kids to whom Anita might have made an admirable and much-needed role model will have no access to it because it’s in English and there are at present no plans to translate it into an Indian language.